BLOOMINGTON — Steve Suess hopes to take the McLean County Libertarian Party's unusual success statewide.
After securing ballot access for local Libertarians in 2016 and running a wide slate of county candidates two years later, the chair of the county party is aiming to fill that same position for the Illinois Libertarian Party.
"We have moved the needle a little bit here locally, but we need someone who can lead an ideologically diverse group of people at the statewide level," said Suess. "I want to make sure we're getting local candidates and parties the resources they need to expand the liberty movement across Illinois."
McLean County remains one of only two Illinois counties where Libertarian candidates can appear on the ballot; they earned that right after Libertarian Gary Johnson received more than 5 percent of the county's votes for president in 2016 and kept it after Libertarian Lex Green did the same in 2018's race for county treasurer.
Suess said grass-roots organizing was key to those advances, and he's eager to help spread that to other county Libertarian organizations — he estimated there are 30 in all. That means bringing not only enthusiasm and leadership but money, training and written materials.
"The state party has a lot of those things, but I don't think we're marketing it as well as we could," Suess said. "Many of those resources sit untouched. I've got to figure out why that's happening."
Suess said he plans to continue to serve as chair of the county party, at least until the 2020 libertarian state convention next March in East Peoria, to build on what the group has achieved so far.
"The biggest benefit of being on the ballot is we know people who pulled libertarian ballots in the last primary, and we can use that to find people who might run for office or work on a campaign," said Suess. Among 28,500 primary voters in March 2018, about 135 voted for Green.
Suess said the party may run fewer candidates in 2020 than the seven Libertarians who ran for McLean County office in 2018, in part to focus resources on a few races rather than spreading them thin.
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"Doing that helped show there are Libertarians who want to run for office, but it was kind of a double-edged sword because our volunteer ranks are small, and there were small campaign teams for those candidates," he said.
Suess added it may help that Libertarians don't plan to push for a referendum to dissolve the Bloomington Election Commission in 2020, as they did in 2018. Republicans also backed that question, which failed.
"We were out campaigning for a referendum when we probably should have been running for county board or treasurer," said Suess.
Though some Democrats and Republicans may view Libertarians as a threat or a nuisance, the local party has found a friend in state Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, who will speak at the group's Sept. 11 meeting.
Suess encouraged Barickman to co-sponsor legislation this spring that would have made it easier for third-party candidates, who now face higher hurdles than Democrats or Republicans, to get on the ballot. Though state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, also got on board, the bill did not advance.
"You'll find political leaders on either side of the aisle who resist that change, and certainly we know who's in control of the legislature," said Barickman, referring to the Democratic supermajority in both Illinois chambers. "That's not to say whether Republican leaders, if they were enabled, might not see the world the same way. ... I think this is just an issue of fairness."
Barickman said he's happy to welcome support from people of any political party, and "people who are passionate about the limited role of government have an ally in (him)," including Libertarians.
Kevin Woodard, who, like Suess, ran for County Board as a Libertarian last fall, said he hopes to continue the local party's momentum by taking over as county chair if Suess moves on.
"We've really got to stop the duopoly. If we look at it as a red team or blue team choice, we're not going to solve the problems of this country," he said. "I think the Libertarian Party is the right group to do that."